This year I have 14 albums of the year. Numbers 14-8 are covered here, while numbers 7-1 will be covered in a few days. Enjoy!
14. State Center – The Hasslers. “An impressively smooth fusion of country, indie-pop and folk; they’re so adept at handling the genre mashing that it’s hard to pick out exactly where one stops and the other starts.” (full review)
12. Songs of Loss – JPH. “Songs of Loss would be hard to explain even if it weren’t so openly dealing with the loss of the artist’s father. … Imagine if LCD Soundsystem had committed to only using acoustic instruments but still wanted to make the same sort of rhythms, or if Jandek had become dancier. These are strange things to try to imagine, I am aware.” (full review)
11. Gardens – Ryan Dugre. “The solo guitar record has a zen-like focus and a clarity that make the music incredibly soothing to a harried mind. … It sounds like audio origami–complex and angular, but only when looked at up close: from afar it seems beautiful, unified, and peaceful.” (full review)
10. The Road – John John Brown. “Brilliant, drawing heavily from traditional Appalachian sounds and modern folk revivalists to create 10 songs of back-porch folk that are fully realized in scope and yet casual in mood. Brown’s dusky voice, an immaculate production job, and a deft arranging hand makes this duality possible.” (full review)
9. Crooked Orchards – Darling Valley. “Stuffed full of tunes with vocal melodies that I can’t say no to, elite instrumental performances, and enough lyrical poignancy to knock the socks off a skeptic or two. It’s the sort of album that makes you remember why folk-pop was fun in the first place.” (full review)
8. S/t – Moda Spira. “A beautiful, intriguing work that combines pensive indie-pop, thoughtful electro-pop, R&B and more into a distinctive sound. The lyrics are just as impressive, tackling the little-discussed topic of marital commitment with candor, verve, and impact.” (full review)
John John Brown‘s The Roadis brilliant, drawing heavily from traditional Appalachian sounds and modern folk revivalists to create 10 songs of back-porch folk that are fully realized in scope and yet casual in mood.
Brown’s dusky voice, an immaculate production job, and a deft arranging hand makes this duality possible. “Dust and Bones” pairs a laid-back percussion line with a spacious fingerpicking rhythm at the beginning, before introducing subtle bass work and two different organ sounds for color. Brown’s superbly comfortable vocal delivery caps off the song beautifully. Even from the first listen, it’s as familiar and lovely as a shirt you put on for the first time and immediately know it will be your favorite one.
“On Our Own” pulls the same trick: the yearning solo violin, distant pedal steel, and hushed background vocals accentuate a lyric set of loss and redemption beautifully. “The Wind” is about as ominous as Brown gets, creating a sense of adventurous danger via keening harmonica. The title track is a jubilant folk tune grounded in big, round bass and a huge chorus vocal melody. “Spirits in the Silence” and “What I Really Want to Do” are a bit more pop-oriented-folk, sort of like Counting Crows, Five for Fighting, or Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi.” Brown carefully crafts each tune to have individual elements that set the songs apart, yet never deviate from the overall chill experience.
This album is magnetic: it’s hard to stop listening once you start. You’ll know all the sounds on each of the songs in The Road, but they way Brown makes them come together is barely short of magic. It’s a rare artist that can make the familiar sound brand new and exciting; Brown is that artist.
1. “The Road” – John John Brown. It’s an impressive skill to breathe fresh vitality into musical staples. John John Brown makes a beautiful concoction out of folk fingerpicking, sawing fiddle, and gentle tenor vocals.
2. “Does She” – Caroline Lazar. Someday I’ll get tired of a thumping kick drum under a fingerpicked acoustic guitar line, but not today: Lazar’s folk pop is bright, charming, and fun (handclaps!). [Editor’s note: This song is no longer available.]
3. “Offering” – Mischief Night. The recording style on this acoustic track makes it feel both cavernous and intimate; the vocals soar in the near distance, while the drums and casio tones are close at hand. The lyrics are intriguing, as well.
4. “I’m Not the Good One” – Ossayol. The delicate fingerpicking is perfectly counterpointed by a violin throughout. The chorus here just nailed me to the wall with its emotive power.
5. “Christine” – Orly Bendavid & the Mona Dahls. An ode to beautiful young women who grow old that balances rueful, pensive concern with an internal energy which pushes the track forward.
6. “Lucid Dreams” – Ego Death. A trembling, quiet performance that evokes solitude.
7. “We Both Know” – Andrew Butler. The pristine, precise arrangements of Andrew Bird, but now with significantly more emotions in the lyrics and vocal delivery.
7. “No God in Mexico” – Danny Whitecotton. Danny Whitecotton is continuing the long tradition of windswept, wide-screen folk troubadour storytelling with political undertones admirably. The sound itself is along the lines of Isbell’s quieter stuff instead of being a folk strumfest.
8. “Liars” – Gregory Alan Isakov. Isakov has expanded from his intimate, cryptic tunes of yore to being back by the Colorado Symphony on this tour-de-force. (The lyrics are still enigmatic in an evocative way.)
9. “Single” – Frith. The walking-speed tempo and distinctive melodic percussion sound of this comfortable, easygoing pop track give it a pleasant “Someone I Used to Know” feel.
10. “Zen Jam” – Joyriot. The title works: the tension between zen and joy is in full display on this mid-’00s indie-pop-rock track. There’s some Tokyo Police Club in there, maybe some Vampire Weekend, but all filtered through a chill, maybe even Death Cab-esque lens. Totally cool.
11. “Dance With Love” – Sam Joole. Joole forgoes his usual reggae vibes for Strokesian early ’00s indie-rock, complete with tambourine, distinctive strumming pattern, and slightly distorted vocals. It’s a blast.
12. “719 Desire Street” – Palm Ghosts. Jangle rock never dies, it just fits itself into the modern paradigm and moves on right along. This one’s a fun, sway-inducing, smile-creating song.
13. “Ten Lines (The Land Below Remix)” – MISSINCAT. I kept expecting this song to do stereotypical pop song things, and it always seemed to have a different corner for me to turn. Mad props for the unexpected in electro-pop.
Stephen Carradini and Lisa Whealy write reviews of instrumental, folk, and singer/songwriter music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.